While Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) gets much of the attention, another mega tech company is also a standout innovator: Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). Over the past year, the shares are up about 32%, and the market cap is a hefty $237 billion.
No doubt, a key to Google’s success has been its dominance of the traditional search business. But this is far from the complete story. The company has used its huge cash flows to also engage in an aggressive M&A strategy. The result is that Google is a dominant player in categories like online video, maps and mobile.
Yet the strategy has been risky. Let’s face it, the history of tech dealmaking is chock-full of disasters. One problem is that it can be extremely tough to integrate a company. Another big risk is a disruptive industry change. For example, this happened with Cisco’s (NASDAQ:CSCO) acquisition of Pure Digital in 2009. The fast-growing company was a leader in HD video cameras. But within a couple years, Apple’s iPhone killed the business.
OK, so why has Google often beaten the odds? It’s not clear-cut, but here are some important themes to consider (for more on this, you can read an excellent piece at TheVerge.com).
First of all, Google’s co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page realize that most innovation will happen elsewhere. So, this means a tech company should build open systems, which helps to improve the technology; always try to find the smartest engineers; and of course, buy companies.
But to make all this work, there needs to be an environment that allows for experimentation (hey, what other company allows its employees to develop driverless cars!). Yes, it can be messy — and mistakes are common. However, it’s the only way to create breakthrough products.
According to David Lawee, who runs Google’s M&A department, nearly two-thirds of the founders of the acquired companies are still on board. Perhaps a key reason is that they have an opportunity to leverage Google’s huge user base. This is often referred to as pouring rocket fuel on a product.
Now, it’s impossible to get a sense of the impact of particular deals on Google’s revenues. But it’s a good bet that the M&A has been important for keeping up the growth rate. From 2004 to 2011, Google’s revenues have gone from $3.2 billion to $37.9 billion.
In fact, when looking back on the dealmaking, it certainly seems that Page and Brin have an amazing sense of anticipating market trends:
Mapping: Online maps have been around since the early days of the Internet. But Google pushed the boundaries of the technology, such as with street views.
A big help was the 2004 acquisition of Keyhole, which developed geospatial data visualization. Its flagship product became the highly popular Google Earth.
Advertising: A core part of Google’s cash machine is AdSense, which allows the posting of ads on third-party sites. No doubt, this came from one of its first deals, which was for Applied Semantics. The company was a pioneer in using text processing technology for targeting ads.
But the dealmaking continued to be aggressive. A $3.1 billion deal for DoubleClick made Google a dominant player in display ads. Then there was a deal for AdMob, which made the company an instant leader in mobile ads.
Video: Google tried building its own product but it got little traction. So, it shelled out $1.65 billion for YouTube back in 2006. At the time, it was a controversial move because the service had minimal revenues.
Well, YouTube continued to gain traction, and today it remains the clear winner.
Actually, YouTube is starting to get serious about premium content. For example, it was the online video provider for the London Olympic Games.
Mobile: About two years before the launch of Apple’s iPhone, Google purchased Android. The company was developing a cutting-edge operating system for smartphones.
When the deal was announced, it got little buzz. The smartphone category was still in the nascent stages. As of now, however, Android is a major operator, with over 1.3 million activations per day.
But Google wants to push things ever farther. Last year it agreed to shell out a whopping $12 billion for Motorola Mobility. Part of the deal was to gain access to patents. But it also looks like Google wants to be a major force in the hardware side of the smartphone and tablet businesses.
As you can see, this track record is impressive. But it has taken awhile to pull off and has required lots of experimentation. Consider that some deals were abject failures, such as the acquisition of Dodgeball. The founder departed and then started Foursquare, which became the leader in mobile check-in services.
But the missteps have been rare. Google has a true culture of innovation, and it continues to be vibrant. And in the end, that should allow for continued success in dealmaking.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPOPlaybook, a site dedicated to the hottest news and rumors about initial public offerings. He also is the author of “All About Short Selling” and “All About Commodities.” Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.